Another story in the series, this one looking back at matron’s youth.
By Tara Patterson
A request from the chairman of the School railway society reminds Matron Taylor of her past.
Matron Taylor thumbed through the pile of internal mail on her desk; email had not yet infiltrated the medical department of Queen Anne’s Boarding School, Ambleside. In the middle of the pile mixed in with all the ‘medical excused’ referrals, illness slips and accident reports was a hand-written card inviting her as an honoured guest to attend the 50th anniversary meeting of the school railway society?
As one of the earliest members of our railway society, and what we believe to be the first female member, we, the organising committee, warmly invite you to propose the vote of thanks for our speaker at the society’s 50th anniversary meeting. We are also delighted to receive your article for the society newsletter of your recollections of the society’s early days and your life as a railwayman’s daughter.
G W Goodfellow
Matron placed the card in her uniform pocket and began to work through the medical paperwork. But no matter how she tried to concentrate, her mind kept wandering back to her own school days and back to that glorious summer of 1968.
* * *
At School, Meryl Taylor was a bit of a loner, a girl who didn’t quite fit in anywhere, or so she thought. Born in York, her Train Driver Father had a moderate win on the football pools in 1959 and had decided to invest it into the education of his two youngest children. Meryl’s elder brother, Brian, had just left school and joined British Railways in his father’s footsteps. Meryl and her younger brother, Samuel, were both sent to the prestigious Queen Anne’s Boarding school in the Lake District.
Although the girls at Queen Anne’s were friendly towards Meryl, she was always the outsider as she was the only working class girl in her year. Back in York amongst the terraced streets off Haxby Road, Meryl didn’t fit in ether as she was the girl who went away to the ‘posh school’. It was only through her interest in railways and steam locomotives, a love she shared with her Father and brothers, did she feel truly happy and contented.
The School ran an active railway society founded in 1965. Meryl, whist not one of the founder members, was certainly one of the earliest and not surprisingly the only female member.
On this early July day in 1968, a month before her eighteenth birthday, Meryl sat on a platform bench at Carnforth station. She was waiting for a connecting train to take her on to York for the summer Holidays. Her trunk and bulky luggage had gone ‘luggage in advance’ so she was just carrying her satchel and camera.
She looked across at the neighbouring engine shed still full of steam engines. With an hour to wait, she thought: ‘I had better make the most of it while I still can. If the reports are true, all this will be gone when I come back next term.’
The end of steam in Britain was set for 4th August 1968.
She left the station and headed down the cinder path to the adjoining Motive Power Depot. Just as she had been told by her friends in the society, behind a pile of oil drums a hole had been made through the wire fence. After a quick look around to see if the coast was clear, Meryl wasted no time in nipping through the gap into the dirty shed yard.
As she looked up and down the rows of filthy engines she didn’t know what to photograph next. She snapped quickly, not caring how much film she used. She just had to record the scene now, today, before it was all gone.
As she passed a large puddle, she spotted her own reflection in the oily water. She smiled at the incredulity of the view, an auburn-haired pigtailed schoolgirl dressed in a blue gingham summer dress, wearing a straw boater and carrying a satchel in the middle of all this smoke, dirt, ash and steam.
And there, at the end of this row of filthy Stanier Black 5s, shone something that she must see; the shining Brunswick green bulk of 70013 ‘Oliver Cromwell’, British Railways last working Pacific loco, looking resplendent after her recent overhaul at Crewe.
‘I must have a closer look,’ Meryl thought. ‘No sign yet of the shed foreman that I have been warned about.’
The yard was deserted; this was too good a chance to miss. Meryl was soon up the steps and into the cab of 70013. She made herself comfortable on the wooden fireman’s seat on the right hand side of the cab and just enjoyed the moment, consigning it to memory. The loco was still warm from its previous run. All that was missing, she thought, was a full head of steam and her father who should be across in the other seat driving.
‘Is that the time?’ Meryl thought, glancing at her watch. ‘I had better get back to the station. I don’t want to miss my train.’
Meryl climbed down backwards from the cab using one handrail, just as she had seen her father and brother do so many times before. As she paused at the bottom of the steps she whispered: “Thank you, old girl, I will miss you all.”
A firm hand-grip on her shoulder sent a chill down her spine.
“And just what do you think you are doing, young lady?” Boomed the gruff voice from behind in a thick Lancashire accent.
Meryl turned around to face her captor; a tall thin man aged about 40 wearing a faded blue smock coat and a battered homburg hat. The running foreman, she thought. As she turned, the man spoke. He was obviously very angry.
“You bloody train spotters are the bane of my life. This is private British Railways property and you are trespassing.”
Meryl spoke. The shock of the situation made her voice croak, she was close to tears. “I’m on my way home from school, sir, for the holidays. I know you are closing soon. I just got tempted. I have just been taking a few photos for posterity. I haven’t done any harm.”
“And you can forget about crying,” snapped the foreman. “That sort of thing won’t wash with me. You are not the usual sort we get here, though. From a long way away, it seems. Your uniform isn’t it from that posh school by the lake at Ambleside? You are the same as all the rest, though, a bloody nuisance.”
The foreman took an old notebook and pencil out of his top pocket.
“And before you think about giving me a false name, remember I am ex-Navy. If there is one thing that us sailors and you schoolgirls have in common, it’s our true name printed on the inside of our hats. So what’s your name then, and where is home?”
“Taylor, Sir. Meryl Louise,” she sighed. “57 Kitchener Street, York. That’s the truth. Seeing as you have caught me in the act, I might as well be honest with you.”
The Forman noted her details in his book and spoke. “Right then, Taylor, I’m sure your parents will hear of this soon, certainly from my superiors and possibly from the police too. If you were a daughter of mine you would be getting a bloody good hiding to teach you to stay out of places you shouldn’t be. Now be off with you. I will be watching to make sure you leave right away.”
* * *
The fear of the consequences of her visit to Carnforth hung over Meryl like a cloud during most of the summer holidays. Every morning she dreaded the arrival of the post. She would often thumb through the mail anxiously looking for an envelope marked ‘British Rail’ or even worse, ‘British Transport Police’. Even after a month there was nothing, but she still worried. Two days after her eighteenth birthday, Meryl was sitting in the back yard trying to concentrate on her holiday reading when her Father walked out and lit his pipe.
“Come on, lass,” he asked. “What’s wrong? You have been acting all strange since you came back from school. Is something worrying you, pet?”
The tension was too much for Meryl. She had to let it go.
“Oh dad,” she sobbed. “I did a really daft thing on the way home. I might as well tell you about it now. The waiting is killing me. You will find out about it sooner or later, so you might as well belt me for it now so I can get it over with and enjoy what’s left of my holidays.”
“Belt you for what, Meryl?” Asked her father, drawing deeply on his pipe.
Meryl thought for a moment, not sure how to begin.
“Well, you know I was late back from school because of that delayed connection at Carnforth? And that black grubby mark on the back of my dress that ma couldn’t get out?”
“The one from the station bench? I remember you telling your mother.” Replied her father.
Meryl looked at her feet.
“More like the fireman’s seat on a ‘Brit’, if you must know. You see, I got bored waiting so I sort of, well, bunked Carnforth shed. There was no one around, or so I thought. Then I got caught by the foreman. He took my name and is going to report me to the police for trespass. I have been waiting for you to get the letter all holiday. Sorry Dad, I should have told you sooner.”
A smile broke across her father’s face and he laughed.
“Certainly my daughter, aren’t you? Nowt will come of it, lass. Our gaffer does that all the time with the train spotters, if he catches them. Taking their names usually puts the wind up them and scares them off for a few weeks. It’s only the persistent ones or the ones doing somert really dangerous he bothers with. Anyway why should that grumpy old bugger at Carnforth worry? It will all be closed down now. Anyway all his engines are gone for scrap. I wouldn’t belt you for something that I or your brother have done in our youth. It were different in my spotting days pre-war though. The charge-hand fitter at the old Midland shed used to help you out of the gate with one of his clogs up your behind. Now if you are doing nowt this afternoon, I’m on the Rowntree’s and Layerthorpe Trip later. Do you fancy a ride?
* * *
“Look what arrived in the post just a week after we broke up. You couldn’t manage four hours away from school before you got into trouble, and still in your uniform as well. What you have got to say for yourself, Taylor?” Shouted Meryl’s headmistress, Mrs Whittaker.
It was the second day of term. Meryl stood on the carpet before the headmistress’s desk as Mrs Whittaker looked at her over the top of her spectacles. On the desk was an open file of correspondence. Many of the letters were headed ‘British Rail’.
The Head continued her rant.
“Mr Hardy, the Divisional Manager, was all for having you summoned and prosecuted for Trespass. What would the local newspaper have made of that, the sight of you one of my sixth form girls in full uniform standing in the dock at Lancaster Magistrates court? Dragging the reputation of this fine school through the mud. And think of the damage such a prosecution would do to your own reputation and future plans. I doubt The military medical service would recruit a trainee nurse with a criminal record. You are a silly girl, aren’t you?”
Meryl shuffled on the spot. Gosh, that foreman was right after all. Why hadn’t the letter gone home? Her father’s belt would have been more bearable than all of this.
The headmistress thumbed through the papers on her desk until she found one at the bottom of the pile.
“However, after much correspondence I have come to an understanding with Mr Hardy to protect your reputation and that of the school. You will not be prosecuted by British Rail but you will be punished here and now for your inexcusable lapse of judgement. Also, seeing as you have wasted so much of my free time, I am going to waste some of yours. On Tuesday evening, instead of attending your beloved railway society meeting, you will present yourself here at 7pm to write a full letter of apology to Mr Hardy.”
Meryl gulped before she spoke.
“I am sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t think taking a few photographs would land me in so much trouble. I was only trying to enjoy my hobby while I still could.”
“Enough of your excuses, Taylor,” snapped Mrs Whittaker. “What is it with you and trains? More of a male pastime, I think. The sooner you take up nursing the better. Well then, young lady, seeing you enjoy male pastimes perhaps a more male appropriate punishment would be suitable in this case; six strokes of the senior cane.”
“Oh no, Ma’am, please, not the cane. Anything but that. Give me eight or ten with the strap as hard as you like, but not the cane,” begged Meryl.
“I have had quite enough of your lip already today, now take off your hat and blazer and bend over the arm of my arm chair,” ordered Mrs Whittaker.
Reluctantly Meryl took off her straw boater and hung it, along with her navy blue blazer, on the hat stand. She bent over the high arm of Mrs Whittaker’s brown leather armchair, her feet on the floor and her head resting on the firm seat of the chair. She could feel her knickers and suspenders stretching tightly across her bottom. In the background she could hear Mrs Whittaker opening the glass fronted cupboard where she kept her canes and leather straps.
Mrs Whittaker tested her chosen cane by swishing it through the air.
The headmistress spoke. “You are only the third girl that I have caned in all my long years here as headmistress. This will teach you how proudly we uphold our standards both in and outside of our school.”
With that, Mrs Whittaker lifted up the skirt of Meryl’s gymslip and folded it up over her back along with her cotton slip to expose her tightly stretched navy blue knickers.
“Now we don’t want any fuss, do we? If you move or stand up without permission I will give you extra.”
Meryl clenched her fists and put her hands in her mouth. She was scared. Her brother, Samuel, had felt the cane last year. He had described in great detail to Meryl the procedure and how much it hurt and how Mrs Whittaker would pause between the strokes to prolong the agony.
Meryl heard the cane land, and for a brief second she felt nothing. Then suddenly a burning sting cut like a red hot poker across her buttocks.
“ARRRR CHRIST!!!!” Meryl shouted as she instinctively straightened up and grabbed her behind.
“Blasphemy and disobedience! Not a good start!” Scolded Mrs Whittaker. “I think we will begin again, don’t you? That stroke will not count. If you continue like this I shall have to summon matron to come and hold you down and that will be more valuable time you have wasted, Taylor.”
Meryl bent down over the chair again and closed her eyes and waited.
The second stroke landed just below the first. Meryl bit into her hand and tried not to make a sound. Behind her, Mrs Whittaker was pacing around the room lecturing about sin and respecting the school rules.
Swish CRACK, Swish CRACK.
Two more stokes were delivered quickly, Meryl tried to be brave but she was sobbing openly now, the pain in her bottom was unbearable.
Swish CRACK. ‘Four down, two to go,’ she thought.
Swish CRACK. This stroke landed low, right at the top of Meryl’s thighs. It was too much and she began to cry and whimper loudly.
Mrs Whittaker continued her lecture. Meryl couldn’t listen, the words were jumbled up with her thoughts and the fire on her bottom.
Swish CRACK. The last stroke.
“OWWW! ARRR! NOMORE!” Meryl cried. “Owww! Sorry, ma’am. OWW! Please stop. ARRR, I can’t take any more.”
Meryl felt broken. She didn’t care anymore. She just sobbed and cried into the leather of the armchair.
“And let that be a lesson to you, young lady.” Mrs Whittaker’s voice came from behind. “Now, on your way and don’t be late on Tuesday.”
* * *
“Ah, Goodfellow. Just the boy I was hoping to run into,” said Matron Taylor as she stopped a short sixth form pupil on her way to the school canteen.
“I would be honoured to propose the vote of thanks at Tuesday’s meeting. You boys do know how to make your Matron feel her age. I was working her for the 25th Anniversary, and as for the beginnings of the society, well a lifetime ago. I like to prepare for things when I speak in public. Would you mind telling me the subject of the lecture?”
“Yes Ma’am,” replied the boy. “It’s quite a coup for us, really. Our speaker is a local retired railwayman. He doesn’t give that many talks now as he is over 90, but a very interesting speaker, with lots of stories. He joined the railway after the Navy as a Loco cleaner at Lostock Hall, Preston, and worked his way up. He retired as a chief Traction Inspector. He is speaking to us mainly about his time at Carnforth Shed, He was Running Foreman there when it closed to steam in 1968.
Matron smiled. “What a small world. It will be interesting meeting him again, on my territory this time.”
“You have met our guest before then, Ma’am?” Asked Goodfellow.
“Only the once,” replied Matron. “At Carnforth in July 1968.”
© Tara Patterson 2015